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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Is Morocco Still Safe For Tourists?

In the past I've always maintained that Morocco is a wonderful and safe place for tourists to visit-- and I've been there over a dozen times, starting in 1969. The post linked above is from 6 years ago. Lately I've come to the conclusion that it's still wonderful, of course, but not quite so safe. Nowhere in the Middle East/North Africa region is. Last time I was there, this past December, I rented a riad in Marrakech, one of Africa's most cosmopolitan cities. Yesterday my friend Helen alerted me to a terrorist attack aimed right at the heart of Moroccan tourism.

In Marrakech all roads lead to the Jemma el-Fna, the main square of the old city, and no matter where you're going in town, you start and you end there. Even distances are measured from how far it is from the square. It's been crawling with tourists-- sometimes thousands and thousands of them-- for decades, if not centuries. The cafes that line the sqaure may not serve the best food in town but theey're the most popular because of their locations and their rooftop terraces. I suspect there'll be a lot of people canceling their reservations now.
A massive terrorist bombing tore through a tourist cafe in the bustling heart of Marrakech's old quarter Thursday, killing at least 11 foreigners and three Moroccans in the country's deadliest attack in eight years.

At least 23 people were wounded in the blast a few minutes before noon in Djemma el-Fna square, one of the top attractions in a country that depends heavily on tourism, Moroccan Interior Minister Taib Chergaoui said.

Government spokesman Khalid Naciri told the AP it was too soon to lay blame for what he called a terrorist attack but he noted that Morocco regularly dismantles cells linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and says it has disrupted several plots.

At least eight French citizens were being treated at Marrakech's main Tofail Hospital, along with one Canadian, a British citizen and three Moroccans, emergency room chief Hicham Nejmi said. Others were being treated at a military hospital and a handful in private clinics.

April marks the start of Morocco's tourist season, when visitors gather to watch snake charmers, storytellers, jugglers and local musicians, filling the cafes that ring the edges of the iconic square on the route to the city's major open-air souk, or market.

Death toll has grown to 16 now. We'd eaten at the Argana several times, mostly because it was a place to hang out to watch the circus that is the Jemma al-Fna. There are half a dozen other places just like it. Moroccans are determined to kick out the plutocratic old regime. It's going to be very painful. There couldn't have been a more effective way than this to deal a major blow to Morocco's economy.

4 months ago Helen took this photo of our friends Mieke and Toon on the Argana terrace, where the bomb exploded this week

UPDATE: More Trouble Brewin'?

The pressure's definitely on and I'd think twive before booking tickets to Morocco any time soon. Today Hisham al-Miraat, co-founder of Talk Morocco, posted a warning at Foreign Policy called Showdown In Morocco. Short version: the Arab Spring is turning into an Arab Summer and it could get pretty hot.
The makhzen refers to an ancient institution in Morocco-- the extended power apparatus close to the Moroccan monarchy, made up of a network of power and privilege. It allows the King to act as an absolute monarch and the de facto head of the executive. Beneath the give and take of everyday politics, the makhzen has always been the ultimate guarantor of the status quo. For three months, the pro-democracy youth movement, known as "February 20," has been advocating against that status quo. Protests have not been targeting the monarchy directly, but instead have been urging for reform that would yield a system in which the King reigns but does not rule.

What started as a small group on Facebook earlier this year, has since grown into a nationwide movement made up of a loose coalition of leftists, liberals and members of the conservative Islamist right. Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and powered by new media, the movement convinced hundreds of thousands to take to the streets. The demonstrations held week in, week out, were remarkably peaceful. In response, King Mohammed VI promised a package of constitutional reforms to be submitted to a referendum in June. But as protesters, unconvinced by the King's promise, vow to keep up pressure on the regime, authorities seem increasingly impatient and determined to break up protests violently, paving the way toward escalation and confrontation with the street. The middle class is joining the mass of demonstrators, moving the protests beyond the core of mobilized youth. Their target is the makhzen-- which has become a code word for the monarchy's abuses of power and monopoly over large sectors of the economy.

...[O]n April 28 a terrorist bomb attack hit a popular restaurant in the heart of Marrakech, killing 17 people. The country was plunged into a state of shock. Beyond the unanimous condemnation, the timing of the attack raised many questions. The fear of a security clampdown and a freeze of liberties were the main concerns of pro-democracy advocates. Their fear is justified. The makhzen has traditionally actively sought to nurture an image of stability-- an exception to the turmoil in the Arab world. That strategy has worked for a time for the regime: Morocco is routinely praised by western officials as an ally of the West in a rather hostile region. The country holds an advanced status with the European Union; it has signed a free trade agreement with the U.S.; it is actively cooperating with the Americans in their global "War on Terror," and it enjoys the status of a Major Non-NATO Ally. The specter of terrorism has long been a useful card for gaining external support.

Police violence in recent days has escalated. On May 15, peaceful demonstrators who wanted to protest in front of an alleged secret detention center in Temara (dubbed Guan-Temara by protesters) near the capital Rabat faced repression. A week later, anti-riot police systematically and violently disrupted peaceful gatherings in public squares. This may be the sign that the regime is shifting its attitude toward the street and taking a much more hardline stance. As with other Arab regimes, the makhzen faces a dilemma: if it clamps down hard on peaceful protesters, it risks loosing its reputation as a model of democratic reform in a region often perceived in the West as averse to the liberal ideals of democracy. If it loosens up, then it will have to face the challenge to its own existence posed by a determined and organized street.

The "February 20" youth movement is vowing to keep up street pressure, rejecting the King's offer of token reform. If the regime insists on denying the people their rights of assembly and free expression, then the country will be heading toward the unknown. Against the backdrop of the Arab revolutions, change looks inevitable. It is still in the power of the monarchy to ensure a peaceful transition and at the same time ensure its own survival. The more the makhzen drags its feet, the more it runs the risk of undermining the stability of the country and, at the end of the day, its own existence.

Things are beginning to come to a head in Morocco's big cities as the monarchy takes off the gloves and prepares to kill anyone and everyone who wants to change the system. The corrupt regime will fall but it will be very bloody.

Tips For Choosing An Africa-Based Overland Tour Operator

This is third in our series from traveller and author Pete Mandra. If you're planning a trip to Africa, you might want to take a look at the first two posts, here and here. Today Pete is being very practical for us:

I like to think of guided overland travel through Africa-- where you travel with a group from Point A to Point B in a customized vehicle-- as a rustic (sometimes VERY rustic) take on an all-inclusive vacation.

Exploring South Africa to Kenya? Nothing for you to do but sit back and enjoy the scenery. Need overnight accommodations? Typically included in the cost of your tour package, along with meals and some attraction entry fees.

Using the Web to find a list of Africa-based overland tour operators is never a problem. But finding the best fit for you personally, as operators and packages vary wildly-- is the challenge. So if you’re considering such a trip, I offer the following related advice, based on my personal experience:
• Follow the leader. When I first signed on for my overland trip, I naively imagined my tour truck situated in the middle of nowhere, solitarily navigating across the vast expanse of Africa by its lonesome. The reality? Not so much. In truth, my route (South Africa to Kenya) is wildly popular and followed by many similar tour groups, all stopping at the same locations to take in the same sights. Do your research, but know that with few exceptions, most itineraries along major routes are essentially the same.

• Comfort is king (or not…) The biggest difference between overland tour operators? Level of comfort, which naturally directly impacts overall price. Remember how I described overland travel as a ‘rustic take on an all-inclusive vacation’? It didn’t get much more rustic for me, spending most nights in a tent (with the opportunity to upgrade indoors to a hostel bed about once a week). I didn’t mind it too much, but took some pity on the elderly Canadian couple traveling with me who experienced the same (the hard ground did nothing for the old guy’s back!) Conversely, other tour operators treat their groups to warm beds every night. The lesson? When you factor price into your decision, keep in mind your desired level of comfort. That dirt ground can feel pretty hard after a few weeks…

• Not all meals are created equally. Ever heard of a TLC sandwich? I didn’t either, before overlanding through Africa, but the Tomato-Lettuce-and-Cheese sandwich quickly became THE (largely unsatisfying) lunch staple of my trip. No matter the operator, meal choices will be limited, but like choosing your level of comfort, meal treatment also varies widely. On our trip, the guides provided staples for simple, self catering breakfasts (bread, cereal, fruit) and lunches (the ‘glorious’ TLC sandwich, along with the occasional tin of sardines). Dinner was slightly different-- cooked by the guides and limited to pastas, hamburgers, and local fare like pap, a traditional maize-based porridge. Though it was nice to be cooked for, we’d often not eat until well into the night, after the guides performed all of their tasks to prepare for the next day on the road.

Though I believe other tour operators handled breakfast and lunch similarly, one group put a very interesting spin on dinner, where travelers partnered up and cooked dinner for the entire group on a given night, purchasing more premium ingredients from local markets with a collected ‘food kitty.’ So do you prefer being cooked for, or a little more variety to your meals? Again, just something to be aware of so you can make the decision that’s best for you.

• Know what’s NOT included (and bring enough money for it!) Snacks during those long truck rides and special excursion ‘add-ons’ (like helicopter rides over Victoria Falls, or special game preserve drives in the wee hours of the morning, when animals are most active) are typically not included in package pricing, so make sure you bring enough money to splurge when you feel like it. Many tourist ‘hubs’ exist throughout Africa that offer everything from hot air ballooning to ATV driving to bungee jumping-- the more commercial an area is (like Victoria Falls, for example), the more choices you will have-- and the more you will pay. My personal advice? Always opt for a game drive at dawn for the best animal viewing. And for the best soft drink on the planet, pick up a bottle of Stoney Tangawizi, a crisp and refreshing ginger ale I would love to see available in the States!

• Don’t arrive empty-handed. This last piece of advice is not so much specific to overland travel, but don’t overlook the power of barter-- it almost always gets you a better deal on that souvenir you are bargaining for. What you barter with doesn’t have to be anything special, but I find that sports team merchandise like logo-branded shirts do best (plus they can usually be had for cheap and are easy to pack!) Or better yet, bring some pencils and pens for gifting to young children, who may not have access to adequate school supplies, to spread some goodwill and joy along your travels.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tibet, The EuroZone, And Back Home-- Open Borders Closing? Passports Becoming Harder To Get?

We were feeling lucky. We were about the close the deal on a fantastic villa in Damascus for the summer just when the Middle East exploded in protest. We've been wanting to visit Damascus forever but we wisely decided to put it off in case the protests spread from Egypt. Did they ever! So we were proud of ourselves that we had the foresight to forego the charms of Beit Al Kamar and plan a trip around Nepal and Tibet instead. Tibet can be sketchy in the best of times and Nepal has had some troubles of it's own (and only has 16 hours a day of electricity in the capital city). But these trips have an inertia of their own and right now our bags are practically packed and we're totally ready to rock. And then, trouble in Shangri-La.
China is stepping up security measures throughout ethnic Tibetan areas following a crackdown on unrest around a monastery in Sichuan province, in a sign of growing tension in the region.

Residents of Gannan Tibetan autonomous prefecture reached by telephone on Sunday reported that armed patrols in the streets had been increased.

One said a truck with “troops” was standing in front of the Labrang monastery in Xiahe, a mainly Tibetan-inhabited town in the area in southern Gansu province.

A resident in another area, the Deqen Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Yunnan province, said local authorities has intensified pressure on Tibetan residents. “Cadres have been making more visits to the villages, and talking about harmony and patriotism,” the person said. Local residents also reported a greater presence of armed police and soldiers in nearby towns.

Beijing drastically increased troop presence in Tibet amid its crackdown on the uprisings in the area in early 2008 as it did following ethnic Uighur riots in Xinjiang the following year, so armed police patrols and deployments at strategic spots are not an unusual sight in these areas. But the residents’ descriptions suggest that those forces are staging a show of strength.

It comes amid a growing country-wide crackdown on dissent which has peaked with the detention of Ai Weiwei, the outspoken artist, as the government frets about a wide array of challenges to its grip on power.

But Tibet is seen by the political leadership as fundamental to the country’s stability and national integrity with religious minorities encouraged to stay in line. Last week’s oil price protests by striking truck drivers in Shanghai, the world’s busiest port, was a reminder of the potent threat posed by inflation.

The latest security measures come in the wake of unrest at Kirti, a Tibetan monastery in Sichuan province, which could mark the biggest unrest in the region since the uprising and the subsequent crackdown in March 2008. The government says the riots back then left 22 dead but exile groups say several times that number were killed, many by security forces.

According to Tibetan rights groups, a 60-year-old Tibetan man and a 65-year-old woman died at Kirti when they, together with other local residents, tried to prevent security forces from removing hundreds of monks from the monastery last Thursday.

More than 300 monks were taken away on army trucks on Thursday night, and more monks were removed on Friday, said Free Tibet, a US-based group, citing sources in Aba prefecture, where Kirti is located.

“As the monks were being driven away in large trucks, the group of lay people – mainly in their sixties or older-- who had been standing vigil at the monastery gate were beaten “mercilessly” by police,” said the International Campaign for Tibet, citing local sources. It quoted an exiled Kirti monk as saying people had their arms and legs broken.

Meanwhile Tibetans in eastern Tibet have been staging a widespread and high-intensity boycott of Han-owned vegetable stores to protest high prices Chinese store owners are charging Tibetans. These are the kinds of conditions under which the Chinese stop issuing tourist visas. We're nervous.

It would be a lot less stable if we just went to Paris or Rome, right? Well, kind of, but even Europe is going through some serious changes right now. Other than the adoption of the Euro itself as a common currency, the biggest deal in tying the European countries together as a nascent super-state is the Schengen Agreement which allows for passport-free travel between the member states. It made it as easy to go from Germany to Portugal as from Vermont to Virginia. It looks like the exodus of thousands of North Africa refugees to Italy is upending Schengen. Sarkozy and Berlusconi have called for a "partial reintroduction of national border controls across Europe, a move that would put the brakes on European integration and curb passport-free travel for more than 400 million people in 25 countries."
Earlier this month, Berlusconi's government outraged several EU governments, including France, by offering the migrants temporary residence permits which, in principle, allowed them to travel to other member states under the Schengen agreement. An Italian junior minister said on Sunday that Rome had so far issued some 8,000 permits and expected the number would rise to 11,000.

Launched in 1995, Schengen allows passport-free travel in most of the EU, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland. But the documents issued by the Italian authorities are only valid if the holders can show they have the means to support themselves, and French police have rounded up or turned back an unknown number of migrants in recent days.

On 17 April, Paris blocked trains crossing the frontier at Ventimiglia in protest at the Italian initiative. "Rarely have the two countries seemed so far apart," said Le Monde in an editorial on Monday.

Yet, with both leaders under pressure from the far right, French and Italian officials appear to have agreed a common position on amending Schengen so that national border checks can be reintroduced in "special circumstances."

...Sarkozy, low in the polls and hoping for re-election next year, is threatened by the Front National and its leader, Marine Le Pen, who calls for the total scrapping of Schengen.

Berlusconi, whose poll ratings have also been sliding, is dependent for his majority in parliament on the xenophobic Northern League, one of whose leaders, Roberto Maroni, is Italy's interior minister.

Even before the exodus from Tunisia, gains by far-right, anti-immigrant parties in north Europe had put Schengen under strain. Centrist parties in Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands have all tried to appease the far right by threatening to re-erect national border controls.

This is a big step backward for Europe, a tightening of border controls that many recognize as an early step in the rise of authoritarianism. It's a movement that the U.S. isn't exactly immune to either. In fact, this week the State Department is tightening up on the ability of Americans to get passports.
The U.S. Department of State is proposing a new Biographical Questionnaire for some passport applicants: The proposed new  Form DS-5513 asks for all addresses since birth; lifetime employment history including employers’ and supervisors names, addresses, and telephone numbers; personal details of all siblings; mother’s address one year prior to your birth; any “religious ceremony” around the time of birth; and a variety of other information.  According to the proposed form, “failure to provide the information requested may result in … the denial of your U.S. passport application.”

The best reporting I've seen on this so far isn't on CNN or MSNBC but at BoingBoing which points out that "the form itself remains a Kafkaesque impossibility for most people to complete."
It seems likely that only some, not all, applicants will be required to fill out the new questionnaire, but no criteria have been made public for determining who will be subjected to these additional new written interrogatories. So if the passport examiner wants to deny your application, all they will have to do is give you the impossible new form to complete.

It's not clear from the supporting statement, statement of legal authorities, or regulatory assessment submitted by the State Department to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) why declining to discuss one's siblings or to provide the phone number of your first supervisor when you were a teenager working at McDonalds would be a legitimate basis for denial of a passport to a U.S. citizen.

Would you consider me paranoid if I admitted I've been feeling for the last few years that the ruling elites think all this easy travel has gotten out of hand and that they want to dial it back... a lot?

Monday, April 25, 2011

By itself worth the trip to Staten Island's Snug Harbor Cultural Center: The Noble Maritime Collection

The houseboat that seaman-artist John A. Noble used as a studio (mounted on a barge on the industrial Bayonne side of the Kill Van Kill, which separates New Jersey from the north shore of Staten Island) was laboriously disassembled, transported, reconstructed, and painstakingly restored in the Noble Maritime Collection, a constituent of Staten Island's Snug Harbor Cultural Center. During Noble's lifetime, the houseboat-studio was featured in a 1954 issue of National Geographic.

by Ken

As I mentioned Friday night, my principal activity yesterday was a Municipal Art Society all-day trip to and walking tour of Snug Harbor Cultural Center on the north shore of Staten Island. The weather was lousy, but held up well enough for tour leader Francis Morrone, a noted architectural historian (best known for his extensive writing on the architecture of Brooklyn, but he's quick to point out that it has been a largely accidental "specialty," and some of the best MAS tours I've taken with him, like this one, have been in other boroughs), to give us a splendid introduction to the history of the first five buildings (known, efficiently, as Buildings A to E), all in the Greek Revival style that was in vogue in the early 1930s, for the "decrepit" sailors' home, Sailors' Snug Harbor, funded by the will of Robert Richard Randall -- a fascinating story in its own right.

"Temple Row": the original five buildings, in Greek Revival style, for what was then Sailors' Snug Harbor and is now the Snug Harbor Cultural Center. The central building, "Building C" -- begun in 1931 and finished in 1933 -- was discovered as late as 1970 to have been designed by the massively influential architect Minard Lafever. (Other buildings were built, Francis explained to us, from Lafever's wildly popular published plan books.)

At its zenith, Sailors' Snug Harbor housed some 1000 retired seamen who upon being no longer fit for seagoing had no place on dry land to "retire" to. With changes in the way maritime commerce is conducted in the 20th century, not to mention social innovations like Social Security, the haven enjoyed steadily declining use, until finally the last residents were moved to a new facility in North Carolina. Over the clamoring of developers eager to get their clutches on the extraordinary site, with immense effort on the part of the rising preservation movement of the 1960s most of the site was eventually landmarked and designated for use as a new Snug Harbor Cultural Center, already home to an assortment of constituents, with the rest of the site still very much a work in progress.

We actually benefited from the lousy weather. It encouraged our leaders, Francis and the MAS's director of tours and programs, Tamara Coombs, herself a Staten Islander, to revise the original plan for the afternoon to concentrate on indoor-type activities, notably allowing us additional time in the John A. Noble Maritime Collection, which occupies Building D. We were already scheduled to eat our lunches there (we had been instructed to come sack-lunch-equipped) but wound up with an extra hour to explore a museum I'd never heard of, but which has become one of my prized spots in the city. Now that I know what and where it is (Snug Harbor, by the way, is a barely 10-minute bus ride from the St. George Staten island Ferry terminal), I definitely plan to go back. As I said to our incredibly gracious and informative host (I feel terrible for not getting his name -- the collection's assistant director, Ciro Galeno, perhaps?), the Noble Collection is a destination worth the trip by itself.

John A. Noble was a seaman-slash-artist, who developed an early fascination for the way the sea tested the men who made their living sailing it, and for a number of years made his living at it, but gradually retired from active seagoing when he discovered he could make a living as an artist of the sea. He drew and painted, but discovered he had a special affinity for lithography, which also provided him with a regular source of income. Noble's parents, both artists, split their time between France, where the younger John was born, and the U.S. The elder John Noble, a painter, somehow managed to be known in France as "Wichita Bill." One of the remarkable exhibits in the museum is a room called "The Atelier of Wichita Bill," a painstaking reconstruction, using actual family objects, of the senior John Noble's studio in France.

Noble's passion for tugboats is well documented in the Noble Maritime Collection's current exhibition on the subject. As our host pointed out to us, tugboats are still an active part of harbor life, and the exhibit has drawn a lot of visitors just for their interest in the tugboat life.

Probably the most fascinating exhibit is the transplanted and restored houseboat that Noble used as a studio, eventually mounted on a barge on the industrial Bayonne side of the Kill van Kull, which separates New Jersey from the northwestern corner of Staten Island. His bio on the Noble Maritime Collection website ( explains:
From 1928 until 1945, Noble worked as a seaman on schooners and in marine salvage. In 1928, while on a schooner that was towing out down the Kill van Kull, the waterway that separates Staten Island from New Jersey, he saw the old Port Johnston coal docks for the first time. It was a sight, he later asserted, which affected him for life. Port Johnston was "the largest graveyard of wooden sailing vessels in the world." Filled with new but obsolete ships, the great coalport had become a great boneyard. In 1941, Noble began to build his floating studio there, out of parts of vessels he salvaged. From 1946 on, he worked as a full-time artist. Often accompanied by his wife, he set off from his studio in a rowboat to explore the Harbor. These explorations resulted in a unique and exacting record of Harbor history in which its rarely documented characters, industries, and vessels are faithfully recorded.
Along with the restored studio houseboat itself, the exhibit includes wonderful photographs showing how the houseboat was actually moved to and then into the museum and then restored. As our host (given his tremendous hospitality and helpfulness, I feel terrible for not getting his name -- the collection's assistant director, Ciro Galeno?) pointed out, the story of how the exhibit came to be is probably at least as fascinating as the exhibit.

And throughout the museum there is a sensational attention in the presentation to context, with writings of Noble's to provide background for his artwork, and all manner of objects, from Noble and a wide range of other sources, to fit both Noble's life and work and the history and mission of Snug Harbor in context. There is, for example, a room that's been reconstructed to the state it would have been when it housed a pair of Snug Harbor residents. There's a room that has been left unaltered for a glimpse of the state the building was in when the museum was created in Building D.

The museum's executive director, Erin Urban, had met and interviewed Noble not long before his death and became fascinated by both his life and his work, and after his death determined that the latter needed to be made accessible, out of which came the idea for the Noble Maritime Collection, taking full advantage of its constituency in Snug Harbor Cultural Center. Apparently through sheer force of will Urban has made into a reality, with a staggering range of activities, and support not just from funders but from a small army of volunteers known as the Noble Crew, whose estimated $1 million worth of labor she has paraded before all manner of potential donors to raise more money.

If you're in the city and have a free day for the expedition, don't miss the Noble Maritime Collection. The gallery is open Thursday-Sunday, 1-5pm.


The last I heard there were still openings for what "urban geographer" Jack Eichenbaum calls his "signature tour," coming up this Saturday, April 30 -- an all-day exploration of selected sites along the route of the no. 7 subway line to Flushing in Queens, which I mentioned recently. Jack is a terrific tour guide, and this is some of his favorite turf. Here again is his description:
THE WORLD OF THE #7 TRAIN 10am-5:30pm SATURDAY, APRIL 30, 2011
This series of six walks and connecting rides along North Queens’ transportation corridor is my signature tour. We focus on what the #7 train has done to and for surrounding neighborhoods since it began service in 1914. Walks take place in Long Island City, Sunnyside, Flushing, Corona, Woodside and Jackson Heights and lunch is in Flushing’s Asiatown. Tour fee is $39 and you need to preregister with Jack Eichenbaum. The full day’s program and other info is available by email Questions? 718-961-8406. The tour is limited to 25 people. Don’t get left out!

You can also get information on Jack's website. I sent my check in as soon as I heard about the tour. It sounds to me like a unique opportunity.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is It Safe, Health-wise, For Tourists To Go Galavanting Around Africa?

camping next to a termite mound

This is the second in a series of posts intrepid traveler and novelist Pete Mandra is doing for us. In way of a little background, Pete began his writing career freelancing for various Chicagoland publications before settling in as a news reporter at the famed City News Bureau, where covering breaking crime news proved the perfect compliment to the dark sense of humor you see so fully developed in Overland. Always more of a homebody who had only left the country once for a stay in the Bahamas, Pete's world turned upside when he met his future wife, Jessica in 2000, who shared with him her infectious spirit of travel and adventure. In short order, the two left their corporate jobs, cashed in their savings and gave up their apartment to backpack around the world, including Africa, the Middle East, Alaska and Europe.

-by Pete Mandra

As a travel destination, the African continent offers much in terms of thrilling excitement, though taking certain medical precautions is an absolute must. Spotting a pride of lions stealthily creeping through the savanna grassland? Absolutely exhilarating. Needing medical attention after contracting an unusual parasite or virus? Not so much.

After participating myself in a six-week tour through Africa, I offer the following medical advice to anyone considering a similar trip through Africa, with the goal of making your experience as memorable as mine with as little health-related stress as possible. My advice is not designed to scare-- only to encourage you to use common sense. And if you happen to be the ‘paranoid’ type, the one who relies on the internet to diagnose their ever-changing ‘life threatening’ symptoms? Take a deep breath and read on. Calmly.

Prior to your trip, seek out a travel clinic for necessary vaccines. By law, you are only required to be vaccinated for Yellow Fever before entering many African countries. However, if you visit a travel clinic (usually affiliated with major hospitals), a medical practioner will review your itinerary and advise you on other potential medical risks and recommend additional vaccines when appropriate.

Malaria medication-- choose wisely. In most cases, you will be prescribed antimalarial medication, which vary greatly in terms of side-effects and dosage requirements (some, like Lariam, require taking once a week, while some, like Doxycycline, require daily dosing). Based on your medical history, you may be allowed to select your medication preference. Results vary, but my own experience with the drug Lariam made me wish I had opted for an alternative. With potential side effects of eliciting strange dreams and hallucinations, Lariam did not disappoint-- many nights I’d wake up from a sound sleep inside our tent convinced it was moving!

A water filter can be your best friend. Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharziasis, is a snail-transmitted, water-borne parasite found in sub-Saharan African fresh water (lakes and rivers) with severe consequences of infection, including bladder cancer and renal failure. So imagine my dismay, on my group tour, when the guide created a lunchtime fruit drink by dunking the empty pitcher into Namibia’s Orange River, the ideal habitat! Additionally, other parasites also exist in African fresh water that do not play very nicely with ‘Western’ immune systems.

Though filtering drinking water is a personal choice (my wife and I were the only ones on the group tour who brought one), I had peace of mind in doing so (though filtering enough water every night for the following day got old in a hurry). It’s also very hard to resist the temptation to dunk yourself in a stunning, African lake to cool off on a hot afternoon, but that, too, increases your risk.

I can’t link drinking filtered water with my staying healthy my entire six weeks in Africa, but I did learn post-trip that some of my fellow travelers ended up being treated for a variety of symptoms later on.

If you need medical attention, beware of ‘local’ cures. Lastly, in terms of medical advice, if you aren’t feeling well during your Africa adventure, be wary of any ‘cures’ offered by the locals to treat your symptoms. Though well-meaning, such ‘cures’ can lead to more issues. For example, during my group trip, a woman unable to have a ‘movement’ for several days (!) took the advice of a local man and consumed a strange root rather than seeking the immediate medical attention she should have. The result? The root made her nauseous, even more miserable, and did nothing to avoid her being air lifted to the nearest hospital to remove the intestinal blockage.

So there you have it-- some practical medical advice for your trip to Africa. It’s hard and stressful enough trekking through the rugged Africa terrain-- anything you can do from a health-related perspective will make life that much easier.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Meet Pete Mandra-- And Overland Travel From Capetown To Nairobi

Pete Mandra is an experienced Africa traveler. He's the author of the humorous novel describing a real life, 6-week overland tour through Africa-- Overland. Here's the first of a series of posts he's agreed to do for us about his adventures:

The day my future wife Jessica and I had finally arrived in Cape Town, South Africa will forever be burned into my mind.

Cape Town is a city of contrasts, contrasts that appeared even sharper after our brutal flights to get there (14 hours in the air, from Chicago to Amsterdam to Johannesburg to (finally!) Cape Town). I see shanty-type huts, constructed from wood and sheet metal, crowding the main road, eventually giving way to the pristine, gated communities of those better off. Pollution and trash exist here as in any other city, yet seem markedly out of place as Table Mountain towers overhead, glowing in the setting red Africa sun.

We visited Africa, which led to the inspiration behind my book Overland, to get a taste of adventure and to see this beautiful continent for ourselves. In a way, Jessica and I were a contrast as well-- at a time in our lives when most couples are worrying about what school to send baby Timmy to, we were ending our apartment lease, cashing in our savings and quitting our jobs (since US firms NEVER give you enough time off!) to see the world.

Our plan was simple-- we had given ourselves three full days to explore Cape Town before meeting up with our tour group-- a full, six-week overland junket that would take us and an entire truckload of strangers from South Africa to Nairobi, Kenya and all points in-between. And as a launching point for our Africa odyssey, Cape Town proved perfect, a mix of majestic beauty, soaring landscapes and proud people.

Table Mountain? Magical (though take a cab back to your hotel, if you plan on hiking it!) Looking out from Cape Point, you can imagine how it earned its deserved reputation as the ‘point of no return’ for many a sailor. In the Cape Town area, I also had my first African wildlife experiences-- first spotting the playful Jackass Penguins near Port Elizabeth (again-- more contrasts!), and then foolishly slowing the car when I spied some baboons who interpreted my actions as a lunch delivery.

But as much as I loved Cape Town-- and I am very looking forward to returning one day-- I am very grateful that we didn’t decide to make it our only stop on the African continent. Africa is a very rich, very diverse land that can’t be represented by a single country within its geographical space, as we quickly found out as we moved through Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. One would not visit Greece thinking they’ve seen all of Europe-- South Africa is much the same way.

For strictly selfish reasons, though, I am certain staying put in Cape Town would not have afforded me the material for Overland, as the book, which I describe as ‘Bill Bryson meets Generation X’, is as much of a celebration of traveling through Africa as it is the trials of ‘joys’ of group travel. Travelling through a constantly churning continent like Africa will provide its share of anxiety from time to time. Throw a group of strangers into the mix, each one stranger than the next, and THEN you’ve got something...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Is It Immoral For Tourists To Visit Tibet?

The closest we could get to visiting Tibet in 1970 was to hike up to the border with Nepal and gaze across. Now there are regular flights from Kathmandu to Lhasa on China Air ($500 roundtrip). I always wanted to go and now I'm going to. Whenever I post something about it, I get barraged with sincere pleas not to go to Chinese-occupied Tibet because it will add to the plight on the Tibetan people, who would still like to maintain their national identity and even regain their national autonomy. Journalists aren't even allowed into the country at all.

We're staying at Yabshi Phunkang, a recently renovated residence of the 11th Dalai Lama that was built in 1838 in the heart of old Lhasa. Yabshi is title given to the parents of the Dalai Lama and Phunkhang is a short form of Phuntsok Khangsar (11th Dalai Lama’s family house). Presumably this notice, which is posted in every hotel in the country, will greet us when we arrive:

Ladies and Gentleman Welcome to Lhasa. So that you may have a safe and enjoyable travels, we would like you to be aware of the following government regulations:

1) Foreigners travelling in China must abide by Chinese law and must not endanger the national security of China, harm its Public interests, disturb the Public order, or engage in any other activities incompatible with tourists status.

2) If Chinese citizens are holding a rally or demonstration, it is strictly forbidden for foreigners to participation, follow along with, take pictures or video film any of these affairs. Foreigners are not allowed to interfere in Chinese internal affairs.

3) Foreigners are forbidden to distribute any propaganda material and join in any religious activity.

4) In accordance with regulations, foreigner tourists must go through all registration formalities and stay only at a designated hotel. Without prior permission it is forbidden to travel in unopened areas, to use undesignated transportation, to operate individual business or privately take up an occupation.

5) It's forbidden to visit and photograph the sky burial site according to the local government's regulations for the minority nationality's habits and customs. The tourist who breaks the regulation will be punished strictly.

6) For safety reasons, it is strictly forbidden for foreign tourists to travel by tractor or other privately operated means of transport. If by any hance a traffic accident happens, under these circumstances you will be responsible for your own actions and the results.

7) Valuables should deposit in checkroom, otherwise, the hotel won't be responsible for the loss.

As "political" as I am on my blog, I'm not travelling around the world looking to interfere in other countries' affairs. In Tibet just speaking with a foreign about politics could land a Tibetan in jail for 20 years. We're going there to see place and get a feel for it. I have enough to worry about with my own country's political dysfunction. On the other hand, I'm not unaware that China would like to turn Lhasa into a kind of Disneyland destination for insensitive tourists. And the beef with travellers going to Tibet is that by going there you implicitly condone the status quo and you enrich the oppressors in Beijing. Yeah, tell it to someone who shops in WalMart... or who owns an Apple computer. Here's a perspective that tries seeing it from all angles:
The first point is something which you must decide for yourself, but I feel that this worry is outweighed by the personal insight one can gain into the current political situation. It must also be borne in mind that over 98 percent of Tibetans live (willingly or otherwise) under the jurisdiction of the Peoples Republic of China and one cannot ignore them; they are trying just as hard to free their country as those in exile. Some live within the system, trying to get the best for themselves and their culture, whereas others attempt to live inspite of it, ignoring the rules.

It is true that Tourism in Tibet is used as a propaganda weapon by Beijing to purvey the message that all is calm in Tibet. If this irks you (as it does me) then make sure you tell people how it really was when you get back home.

The second point is something in my view is far more serious:

Many shops and restaurants are not owned by Tibetans, but by migrants. These migrants are encouraged by tax breaks and other government measures. The government would appear to be following a policy of cultural harmonisation by marginalising Tibetans and Tibeatan culture through a dilution of the Tibetan population. This is being done in the hope that future Tibetans will not be able to differentiate themselves from people in other parts of China. This policy would appear to have had some success in Chinese Inner Mongolia where Mongolians are outnumbered 20:1.

As tourism is an important part of the local economy, the growth of tourism will allow more migrants to earn a living in Tibet. There are two ways to combat this: don't go to Tibet, or if you do choose to visit, then you should stay in Tibetan owned hotels, shop in Tibetan stores and eat in Tibetan restaurants. Anyway, who wants to go all the way to Tibet just to eat cuisine from China? The Chinese and Hui food is far better in Chengdu and Linxia.

The Free Tibet website lists the pros and cons for travelling to Tibet.
Arguments for travelling to Tibet:
• The Dalai Lama  encourages foreigners to witness the oppression in Tibet and to inform others of their experiences on their return.

• Tourism provides a window to the outside world for Tibetans. 

• Tibetans find the presence of tourists in Tibet encouraging.

• Consider going to Tibetan populated areas outside the TAR in Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces, where you can travel without a special permit and the need to hire an official guide.
Arguments against travelling to Tibet:

• Tourism provides legitimacy to China's occupation.

• Most of the money you spend will go into the pockets of Chinese enterprises. The tourist infrastructure in Tibet is largely controlled by Chinese businesses with headquarters outside Tibet.

• It is hard to travel in Tibet without tacitly complying with the Chinese regime.

• Tourists are only allowed to travel to the TAR in an officially organised group, on an officially approved itinerary and guided by an officially approved guide.

And if you feel it's wrong to go to Tibet, where do you draw the line? Russia? Israel? Morocco? Myanmar? Arizona?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Trekking In The Himalayas Can, If You'd Like It To, Bring You More Than Just Awesome Vistas

Yesterday we published a guest post by Jeffrey Rasley on safety in Nepal. Today we'll look at a more personal reminiscence by Jeff on his complex and exhilarating relationship to this relatively mysterious and inaccessible country. His new book, Bringing Progress to Paradise, combines adventure travel with service work in Himalayan villages and if anyone is interested in contacting him about either his e-mail address is

A Resting Place in Nepal
by Jeff Rasley

I first went to the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal as an adventurer and mountain climber in 1995. After four Himalayan expeditions in five years I’d had enough. In 1999 my climbing team barely escaped an avalanche that killed three Nepalese porters. Even though there was nothing I could have done to help these men, I was plagued by guilt over their deaths.

The men who staffed our Himalayan expeditions as guides and porters were the strongest and kindest people I had ever known. They emanated a beautiful spirituality and displayed almost super-human strength. After seeing those three men swept away in a tsunami of ice, snow and rock, I resolved not to go back to Nepal. There were other places to go adventuring, which would put only me in danger, not others.

But a call to return to Nepal in May 2003 was too strong to resist. It was the Jubilee celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first recorded summit of Mt. Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The country was suffering through a civil war and needed tourist Dollars. The King of Nepal and Sir Edmund Hillary made a joint appeal to mountaineers throughout the world to come join in the celebration.

So in the spring of 2003 I trekked through the Khumbu region of Nepal and up to Mt. Everest Base Camp at 18,000 feet. I trekked with twenty members of the Hillary family for two days along the Base Camp trail. They were making a pilgrimage led by Sir Edmund’s older sister June, who was 86. I learned much about Sir Edmund’s devotion to the Sherpa people. After he became rich and world-famous, Hillary devoted much of the rest of his life to philanthropy for the Sherpa people. He greatly admired the unique character of strength and Buddhist gentleness he found in the high mountain people of Nepal.

The Jubilee experience had a profound effect on me. I felt the pull of Nepal again, but it was more than just the mountains, the culture, and the need for adventure. My encounter with the Hillary family compelled me to think about what I could do for Nepal and then to act. I’m not rich or famous, like Hillary. I don’t have the time or inclination to own and operate an expedition company, like Peter Hillary, Sir Edmund’s son. But I decided I would try in my own small way to help make a meaningful connection between the high mountain people of Nepal and friends from the West.

My plan was put into action the year after the Jubilee. I organized a three-member expedition. We raised $1,000 for a water project in the Dolpo region of Nepal and delivered 65 pounds of children’s clothes and school supplies. Since then, I have returned each year with a new group. Our trekking groups and related fundraising efforts have helped to finish construction of a village school, employed two teachers, connected a village school with two American schools in pen pal relationships, and distributed hundreds of pounds of school and medical supplies, clothing and toys. In 2009 our group included seventeen members and more than 90 people have made cash donations.

So here I am again. It’s just after sundown on December 1, 2010 and I’m sitting with Ganesh Rai and Buddiraj Rai by a campfire on the Ratnagi Danda, a 10,000 foot high ridge in the Nepal Himalayas. Everyone else is asleep in their tents. We are on our way out of the mountains trekking back to the airstrip at Paphlu village to fly to Katmandu. Our trekking group delivered a hydroelectric generator and the equipment to create electricity for Buddi and Ganesh’s little village, called Basa, which means “resting place.” The villagers have lived for hundreds of years in Basa without any source of power except burning wood. Now the village will have electricity.

Sitting by the campfire with Ganesh and Buddi I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the unique spirit of the high mountain people. They had promised to share with me the traditional stories and rituals of the Rai people of Basa. Because I had helped finish the village school and had helped to provide employment for villagers by bringing trekking groups to Basa, the villagers called me “dhai” (elder brother).

Ganesh and Buddi knew that I had written a book about the special relationship I have developed with Basa village. They had requested permission from Kumar Rai, the senior porter of our staff and son of the village shaman, to tell me the ancient stories and rituals. Kumar had granted permission and told them he hoped I would write another book and bring more “white people” to Basa.

But working with the village is not a one-way street of Westerners bringing our money and higher material standard of living to Basa village. Yes, my friends gave Basa the capital to build a hydroelectric power station. But “the resting place” can give my friends and me a different power-- the power of spiritual contentment.

I will try to fulfill Kumar’s hope. What I learned from Ganesh Rai and Buddiraj Rai that night high on the Ratnagi Danda will be the beginning of my next book.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Is Nepal A Safe Place To Visit? Guest Post By Jeffrey Rasley

Author and Himalayan Mountains expedition organizer Jeffrey Rasley is one of America's foremost experts on Nepal. Since I'm getting ready for my third trip to that country, I was happy to find out he's releasing his second book about the country, Bringing Progress To Paradise. I was even happier when he agreed to do a guest post for the blog.

A Change To Violence

-by Jeffrey Rasley

In the 1980s and ’90s, the trekking-tourist industry grew rapidly. Many Nepalese were lifted out of poverty in the tourist destination areas such as the Katmandu Valley, the Khumbu along the Base Camp Trail, Langtang, Pokhara, and around the Annapurna Circuit Trail. But the boom was short-lived and busted by the end of the ’90s. The 2003 Jubilee celebrations caused an uptick, but the truce between the government and the Maoist rebels ended after the celebrations, and the return to violence again scared off the tourists, particularly Americans, because President Bush declared the Maoists an international terrorist organization.

In October 2004, while I was mucking around in Tribhuvan International Airport dealing with lost bags, friend Elliot was waiting for me outside the airport when he saw an explosion in downtown Katmandu. The Maoists had rolled three hand grenades into an office building. That was the closest anyone in my trekking groups came to experiencing violence or being directly affected by the civil war in Nepal. But fear of violence and the political instability of Nepal frightened some friends away from joining my expeditions.

Beginning in the late 1990s, the Maoists claimed territorial rights over certain trekking trails. These trekking trails became revenue sources for the Maoists. Armed bands would block trails and require trekkers to pay a fee to use the trail. The leader of the band would give the trekkers a lecture about politics in Nepal and then issue each trekker a certificate declaring the fee had been paid so other Maoist bands would not collect the fee a second time. If a trekker didn’t have enough money to pay the fee, the Maoists would take a camera, climbing gear, down jackets, or other valuable possessions. The fee was generally around $100, but after the U.S. government declared the Maoists international terrorists, Americans were required to pay double the amount of all other nationals. When the Maoist insurgency was at its worst, I wrote “Canada” on my trekking duffel with a Sharpie, just in case.

The Maoists were unsuccessful in penetrating Sherpa communities in the Khumbu, so, happily, I never had an encounter with one of their armed bands. Every Westerner I met in Nepal who hiked the Annapurna Circuit from the mid-90s through 2006 had a Maoist encounter. In the Khumbu, what we encountered was an ever-increasing military presence. Each year, we passed more government soldiers on the trails and had to cross through additional military checkpoints.

In Katmandu, the king would periodically impose a curfew on citizens, which usually didn’t apply to tourists. Walking back to our hotel in 2004 after a night out with Nepalese friends, Briggie, Elliot, and I had to endure the hard stares of young soldiers with loaded carbines. They were understandably resentful that we were allowed to walk the streets of Katmandu freely, while our Nepalese friends had to skulk down alleys and hide from the soldiers, or risk arrest or a beating. Most of the army recruits during the civil war were young uneducated village boys. Their training was poor, evidenced by the fact that they lost most of the pitched battles against the Maoists, and the allegiance of the Nepalese people eroded and eventually swung in favor of the Maoists. So it sent a little shiver down my spine when that young soldier stepped out in front of us, pointing his rifle at us, while intently eyeballing Briggie, a tall, slim, blond, blue-eyed South African. But with a sneer and jerk of his head, he let us pass.


I have never been the victim or even seen any real violence in Nepal, but what I did experience was amazement and disbelief at the change in the Nepalese attitude toward violence as the Maoist Rebellion became a full-fledged civil war. Just before my first visit to Nepal in 1995, a Nepalese guy killed a European in a bar fight in Katmandu. The entire nation was in mourning when we arrived because of the felt national disgrace and sorrow over a guest of Nepal being killed. In the ten-year civil war, from 1996 to 2006, an estimated 12,800 Nepalis died. I found it unbelievable that the Maoists and the government could have brought such a degree of fear, death, and destruction to a nation that mourned so soulfully over the death of one person two years before the war began.

In 2006, as the war reached its climax, a friend was brutally beaten in Katmandu. Raaj is a native Nepali, but grew up in India, has long hair, owned a tea shop in Katmandu, and is the leader of a rock band. He looks like a dissident, but he was not a Maoist, just a guy who loves Western rock music. One night when walking home after a gig in Thamel, Raaj and his band mates were jumped and beaten by “royalists.” Raaj’s arm and nose were broken. When I saw him a month or so after the beating, of course I was upset for him, but I also found it hard to accept that such a thing could happen in this country that had been a beacon of peace in a violent world just a few years before.

More on Jeffrey's Nepali observations tomorrow.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Exploring NYC, Part II

I'll explain in a moment why I'm presenting this screen shot from Jack Eichenbaum's "Geography of New York City" website,, which I encourage anyone interested in getting to know NYC better to check out. (You can click on it to enlarge it for enhanced readability.)

by Ken

And when I say "a unique tour opportunity," I mean a unique tour opportunity. If you can't wait to find out about it, you can scroll down straightaway to "THE EXCITING OPPORTUNITY."

In writing sketpically last night about the "miraculous" transformation of Times Square, which NEA Chariman Rocco Landesman (who as head of the Jujamcyn Broadway theater chain played an active role in that transformation) explained in his keynote speech at the Municipal Art Society's annual meeting this week he is promoting as a model for cities all over the country seeking major new development, I mentioned that I had joined the MAS for its walking tours. Tonight I want to talk about that a little more, and in the process clue you in to this exciting upcoming opportunity, which may not be quite once-in-a-lifetime but is so exciting, at least to me, that I want to try to spread the word to people who would jump at it if only they knew about it.

(Again, if you want to skip the blather and get straight to "the exciting opportunity," feel free to scroll down to "THE EXCITING OPPORTUNITY." I won't take it personally. Well, that's not quite true. I suppose I take everything personally, but that amounts to the same thing.)

I also mentioned last night that I had two MAS tours booked for this weekend, and by coincidence, for those who believe in coincidence more than I do, today's happened to offer which are surprisingly inexpensive, especially for members (typically the two-hour tours are $10 for members, $15 for nonmembers; longer ones -- including several of the new ones I signed up for yesterday -- are naturally more expensive, but not much), and surprisingly (at least to me) helpful in enabling you to look at even parts of the city you may have thought you knew pretty well and begin to see them through the eyes of someone who has better, smarter ways of looking at them.

I suppose major cities have always had walking tours of a sort, but the kind of historical-mindedness that has made them flourish seems to me a phenomenon of recent decades. And for me the whole thing is brand-new. I don't know why I waited this long to avail myself of the opportunities; on any given weekend day there seem to be dozens of them around the five boroughs, and for that matter stretching into the whole metropolitan area. I guess I've done so much tramping around at least portions of the city over the decades I've lived here that I mistakenly imagined I didn't need that kind of "prompting." In fact, even with all that tramping, there are large swaths of the city that are pretty much terra incognata to me, and as I just said, I've learned as much touring parts of the city I thought I knew pretty well.

Times Square, to pick a random example. Last night I described the sense of aloneness feeling that I was the only one at the annual meeting of the MAS who wasn't so absolutely certain that the miraculous rebirth of Times Square over the last couple of decades is miraculous but harbored the whisper of a doubt that it's even a good thing for the vitality of the city. I'm sure I was exaggerating. It felt that way, especially when that audience member challenged the two-person panel on the Times Square rebirth for failing to give enough credit to Disney. For some of us the mind-numbing blandness and mush of Disney is an all too apt symbol for, well, the mind-numbing blanndess and mush of the "revitalized" Times Square, which seems to exist to shake fistfuls of moolah out of folks who, in fairness, seem only too eager to spend it, on crappy blockbuster musical entertainments, wildly overpriced schlock merchandise, and wildly overpriced schlock food.

It might be stressed that what Chairman Rocco, an honorable man who seems to genuinely believe in his vision of using the arts as the basis for economic redevelopment, understands by "arts" does seem to place a premium on crappy blockbuster musical entertainments. There actually are other visions of urban life, cultural life, and urban cultural life. The problem is that while there are a lot of people out there who might support their efforts, they're scattered and hard to find, whereas the audience for what Chairman Rocco understands by "arts" seems to be out there in abundance just waiting to be told what to do to be officially "entertained."

My MAS tour today put me squarely in contact with the other end of the arts spectrum. It was a "tour" of the East Village block of East Fourth Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue which has become the city's second-only designated "cultural district" (and the only one in Manhattan; the other is in Brooklyn, around the Brooklyn Academy of Music, of which our guide for this tour, Lawrence Frommer, will be leading an MAS tour on June 4), a block on which numerous shoestring arts organizations had taken root, and by coincidence (again?) the block on which one of the city's most storied theater enterprises, the late Ellen Stewart's LaMama E.T.C., found its enduring home.

It was a thrill to encounter the passion and energy of the director of FAB (Fourth Arts Block), the nonprofit organization founded in 2001 to give these for the East 4th Street Cultural District, who joined us on the tour, and also introduced us to some of the people working on that block. Tamara and her associates play all the angles, working with government and funding organizations as well as community businesses to help sustain and promote the life and activities of the district arts organizations, and indeed organizations outside the immediate district with which FAB networks. The kind of art they promote clearly isn't for the mass audience to which shows like Spider-Man: Get Off My Lawn are aimed, but they're essential to the vitality of city life, and indeed make the city a vastly more livable place.


What got me started on this whole walking-tour thing was a bunch of the New York Transit Museum's tours, including an especially illuminating one about the engine for economic development created by transit "nodes," places where multiple subway lines intersect, starting with Times Square, which is unlike anyplace else in the city, sitting as it does atop the Sixth Avenue IND, Broadway BMT, Seventh Avenue IRT, Eighth Avenue IND, IRT Flushing, and crosstown shuttle lines. The guide for that tour, Queens's borough historian, "urban geographer" Jack Eichenbaum, had an uncanny eye for pointing out the buildings and street life of the area reflect the history of the area's transit development, and then he did the same for Queens Plaza and Jackson Heights in Queens.

The subway lines crossing those Queens nodes in both cases include the IRT Flushing line, the No. 1 train, which is one of the city's most fascinating lifelines, a veritable international lifeline. And on April 30 Jack is offering what he describes as his "signature tour."
10am-5:30pm, SATURDAY, APRIL 30

This series of six walks and connecting rides along North Queens’ transportation corridor is my signature tour. We focus on what the #7 train has done to and for surrounding neighborhoods since it began service in 1914. Walks take place in Long Island City, Sunnyside, Flushing, Corona, Woodside and Jackson Heights and lunch is in Flushing’s Asiatown. Tour fee is $39 and you need to preregister by check to Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354 (include name, phone and email address) The full day’s program and other info is available by email The tour is limited to 25 people. Don’t get left out!

I got my check in the mail the day I saw the announcement. This promises to be a memorable occasion, and I know Jack still has openings. Frankly, I want to make sure he's got enough people registered to make it a "go." So I want to be sure all the people who would want to know about it do know about it. Spread the word!

And Jack's got a bunch of other tours coming up, both for the MAS (he has one next Sunday, April 10: "Conforming to the Grid: West Side," the sequel to an earlier "East Side" version, which I unfortunately couldn't get to; these tours are in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the street-grid plan that charted out the future development of Manhattan) and on his own (including weekend afternoons devoted to Long Island City and a fascinating-looking series of Wednesday-evening tours under the rubric "Changing Cultures of Queens: A Walking Anthology"). If you're in the area, do yourself a favor and check out the "Public Tour Schedule" on his website.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The "new" Times Square is the key to revitalizing cities all over the country. (It is, isn't it?)

What, ya think I don't go to no Broadway shows? Yeah, I saw Spider-Man: Shut Off the Lights, or whatever the thing is called. Ya wanna make somethin' of it? (It would be nice if somebody did. The performers sure didn't seem to be having much luck trying to. This could be why the producers are shutting it down "for a brief hiatus," April 19-May 11. Good luck with that.)

by Ken

These days by and large when I stagger to 6pm and the end of my workday, like as not I'd just as soon shuffle home. (And that's no express hop. If I take my least stressful homeward transit route, once I board the train I get off a mere 28 stops later. But who's counting?) The other night, though, after surprising myself by remembering to look at my calendar, I was reminded that I had a commitment: the annual meeting of New York's Municipal Art Society.

This is the first time I've ever been an MAS member at the time of the annual meeting, and therefore eligible to attend. (I joined for the excellent MAS walking tours, and in fact have two coming up this weekend -- I just hold my knees hold up. Why, today I got around to poring over the April-May calendar I brought away from the meeting and signed up for four more tours.)

I get lots of e-mail from the MAS, and once I've checked out the upcoming tour listings, I often actually read about of the society's real business, which is monitoring and advocating for a host of urban quality-of-life issues. Great stuff! It seemed only logical to RSVP my attendance at the annual meeting. Besides, there was the promise of some sort of reception afterward. Although I am widely known in my admittedly narrow circle for the motto "Free isn't necessarily a bargain," the offer of free food nevertheless gets my attention.

I arrived early, as I often do -- my only weapon against the familiar horror of wheezing in late. I found a nice seat in the spacious theater where the meeting was held -- in the Times Square area, the them of this year's meeting being the miraculous regeneration of the area over the last 20 years --and tried my best not to wish I'd been able to go home.

In fact, the meeting was fine, and I'm glad I went fear of arriving late, And then talk turned to the impending annual meeting, at which there would be speeches and a panel discussion and election of new board members (who'd actually already been chosen; they were just going to be ratified) and even a reception afterward. Somehow in this telling it sounds even less interesting than it turned out to be, but the thing is, since I was a member, I got to go, and I did. And I'm not sorry I went.

For one thing, among the on-the-stage people there were a number with names I sort of recognized for their history of civic involvement. It was nice to attach faces and bodies to the names, and to see these very grown-up people really making a difference in their (our) community. During the president's talk about the society's agenda for the coming year, I actually got out a pen and jotted down the 11 items he announced for "our" Livability Watch List for the year, and it all sounded pretty darned good. Assuming I can read my notes, I could listen them for you, and I think you'd agree that they sound pretty darned good. Oh wait, I can crib them from the MAS website, which is where you'll find brief descriptions of each, with links to fuller discussions.

The MAS 11 for 2011 Watch List

The MAS 2011 Livability Watch List is a compilation of the 11 initiatives that will have the most significant effect on livability in New York City this year. As the leading organization dedicated to creating a more livable New York through intelligent urban planning and design, MAS will call attention to these 11 through advocacy work, public programming and issues monitoring.

Stay tuned to for updates and watch for announcements on MAS programs that will explore our 11 for 2011.

1. Moynihan Station & Hudson Yards
2. The Garment District
3. Disaster Planning
4. Public Housing
5. The Bronx
6. Lower Manhattan
7. NYU Expansion
8. Changing Streets
9. PlaNYC 2.0
10. Waterfront
11. Coney Island

Serious stuff, right? Okay, in most cases you'll have to check out the website link to find out, for example, "Well, what about the Garment District, or Changing Streets?" But I do believe that a lot of people with their hearts in the right place have put a lot of time and effort into this, and come up with serious initiatives.

So it was all inspiring in its way: all these serious grown-up people devoting all that time and effort to making the city a more vibrant, livable place. I truly admire what they do, even as I know that that probably sounds like the prelude to a "but" which will lead to some bashing of what they do.

I won't bore you with an extended recap of the speeches. The keynote was given by Rocco Landesman, whom most of us know as, until recently, the head of Jujamcyn Theaters, operator of five Broadway theaters and thus one of the largest players in the city's live theater industry. He stepped down when he was named by President Obama to head the National Endowment for the Arts. And I jotted down some keywords from his speech too, which was also inspiring. Rocco was a major player in the Times Square revival -- after all, the financial health of Jujamcyn's theaters depended on lots of people wanting to come into the area, which for many years they had been not so eager to do because it had become so run-down and dangerous.

The turnaround, all present agreed, was nothing short of miraculous. It is also, Rocco explained, a model he is encouraging at the NEA to cities around the country: using the arts as an engine for urban revival. And even I was feeling kind of warm and toasty. I jotted down some notes from his presentation too.

Until I realized that I seemed to be the only person on the premises who wasn't entirely persuaded that the "rebirth" of Times Square was such a miracle. Oh, lip service was paid to the specter that had haunted the planners in the process of rebirthing the area: gentrification. You got the feeling that they weren't so much afraid of gentrification as they were afraid of being accused of gentrifying. Now that the grand project is complete and such a universally acknowledged rip-roaring success, it was possible for a certain number of those present to giggle at the very idea of the threat of gentrification.

When the floor was opened to audience questions, one questioner accused the panel participants of failing to give proper credit to Disney for the renaissance. The panelist most involved explained that yes, Disney had been important, because it lent credibility to the idea that the area could be reborn, but in fact the plans were in place before Disney signed on.

Who couldn't love the new Times Square?

To an extent, the lip service paid to apprehension over gentrification extended to pretending it hadn't happened, or not entirely. There was much satisfaction over the fact of the new Times Square being built on the old, and it's indeed true that much of the Broadway theater business was preserved -- surprisingly few of the commodious old theaters have been lost. Of course the serious part the Broadway theater business today is only serious about business, and has switched to the big monster houses, suitable only for high-noise "musicals" whose sound is delivered entirely as an electronic assault -- it's hard to know why audience members even need to be in their seats. Probably they have better-sounding sound systems at home on which they could listen to the proceedings in better sound as well as greater comfort.

The sad reality is that the Broadway theater as any sort of cultural medium has been dead for decades. It would go too far to say that the rebirth of the area killed it off. It was mostly moribund already, although the neighborhood in its rundown "depressed" condition probably made it possible for a certain number of shows of some actual artistic consequence to find temporary lodging.

So no, it's not really the death of artistic seriousness in the Broadway theater that I'm mourning now that Times Square is all improved. No, it's more that there's hardly anything to do in the improved Times Square. It's like a giant theme park, only without any rides. Just wildly overpriced restaurantlike businesses serving swill that barely qualifies as food and enormous clutches of selling even more wildly overpriced, well, stuff. What I see is one giant tourist trap, to use the old-fashioned term.

It's obviously a minority opinion that there's nothing to do in the new Times Square, because it's now routinely packed. At peak hours both the sidewalks and the streets are almost impassable. But I'll be damned if I can figure out what they're all doing, unless it's just to spend down a dangerous oversupply of time and money which seems to afflict these folks.

I used to have a dozen or more frequent destinations in the area, and probably another couple of dozen occasional ones. They're now all gone. Awhile back, when my friend Richard invited me to join him at a preview performance of Spider-Man: It's Dark in Here! -- it wasn't supposed to be a preview performance when he bought the tickets, but as of now, and for the foreseeable future, there haven't been anything but preview performances -- and we tried to find someplace to eat afterward, we were stumped.

Now you must understand that Richard is practically psychic when it comes to divining decent places to eat. None of his finely tuned sensors yielded anything. Oh, there were lots of restaurantlike establishments, but you could easily see which gimmick each was peddling, and none of it held much promise of edible food. So we settled for the outlet of a famous national chain, and after I gagged at the prices, I gagged at the turkey burger I was served. I'm not a food sender-back normally, but inedible is inedible. I swapped it for a cheeseburger that for my 28 bucks was at least edible.

Oh man, The Filthy 5 and The Promiscuous Sex Whatever (does it really matter? what could be bad that starts with "The Promiscuous Sex . . ."?) -- plus Sex with Stran[gers] (I'm guessing) too??? Were those the days or what?

Now I understand that the dark and dangerous old Times Square wasn't good for business, and what's bad for business isn't good for a city that has always depended on commerce. Still --

Again, it's undoubtedly just me, but I never found the old Times Square especially dangerous or depressing. To me it was filled with life, just as through most of its history New York City has enjoyed such a rich mix in that commerce it depends on that diversity of experience, including cultural experience, was built into the mix. Oh, sometimes it was messy, but it was vibrant, and alive. And once upon a time, somehow, a lot of people made a living there as well.

Most of the people I know feel pretty much the same way, but then, in the grand economic scheme of things, even though each of us actually spends a decent amount of money, we don't spend it in the safely predictable mass-group way that the people who mob the new Times Square do. And in the end, it's their money that drives this particular economic machine, even if it's being driven to noplace special.